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Levirate marriage is a type of marriage in which a woman is required to marry her deceased husband's brother. Levirate marriage has been practiced by societies with a strong clan structure in which exogamous marriage, i.e. that outside the clan, was forbidden. It is or was known in societies around the world.

The term is a derivative of the Latin word levir, meaning "husband's brother".

Background and rationale

Levirate marriage can, at its most positive, serve as protection for the widow and her children, ensuring that they have a male provider responsible for them. It can also be seen as a denial of women's autonomy, and a restraint on her life. The practice was extremely important in ancient societies (e.g., Israelitemarker and Near East), and remains so today in parts of the world, because children enabled the inheritance of land, which offered security and status. A levirate marriage might only occur if the man died childless, in order to continue his family line. A barren woman or widow was often believed to be cursed by God so every possibility was exhausted in order to bear children.

In the Hebrew Bible and Judaism

In Judaism, a levirate marriage (Hebrew: yibbum) is mandated by the Torah (Pentateuch) ( ) which obliges a brother to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother, with the firstborn child being treated as that of the deceased brother. However, there is another provision known as halizah ( ), which enables either party to avoid the levirate marriage. Later authorities in Jewish law (Talmudic period) strongly discouraged yibbum in favor of haliza.

In Islamic law

Islam lays down rules for marriage, including who can marry whom, and the Qur'anprohibits wife inheritance. However, certain groups in Muslim-majority countries do or did practice levirate marriage, more often in the name of customary law than Islamic law (sharia). "Certain tribal cultures ... enforced the levirate ... according to which a brother of a deceased husband was obliged to marry his widow."

Areas practiced


Among the Mambila of northern Cameroonmarker, "both levirates are practised throughout the tribe".

Central Asia and Xiongnu

Levirate marriages were widespread among Central Asian nomads. Chinese historian Sima Qian(145-87 BCE) described the practices of the Xiongnu (also transliterated "Hsiung-nu") in his magnum opus, Records of the Grand Historian. He attested that after a man's death, one of his relatives, usually a brother, marries his widow.

The levirate custom survived in the society of Northeastern Caucasus Huns until the 7th century CE. Armenianmarker historian Movses Kalankatuatsi states that the Savirs, one of Hunnish tribes in the area, were usually monogamous, but sometimes a married man would take his brother's widow as a polygynous wife. Ludmila Gmyrya, a Dagestanimarker historian, asserts that the levirate survived there into "ethnographic modernity" (from the context, probably 1950s). Kalankatuatsi describes the form of levirate marriage practised by the Huns. As women had a high social status, the widow had a choice whether to remarry or not. Her new husband might be a brother or a son (by another woman) of her first husband, so she could end up marrying her brother-in-law or stepson; the difference in age did not matter.

"The Kirghiz practice levirate whereby the wife of a deceased male is very often married by a younger sibling of the deceased.""Kirghiz ... followed levirate marriage customs, i.e., a widow who had borne at least one child was entitled to a husband from the same lineage as her deceased spouse."


Levirate was quite common in rural Indiamarker until as recently as a few years ago, and is still practiced in certain parts of Punjabmarker and Haryanamarker. It is called "Latta Odhna" in the Jat of Haryanamarker, Latta being the Haryanvi word for a cloth that women used to cover their heads and faces, and Odhna translating as "covering/wearing". This is also called "Chadar Dhakna" in other parts, Chadar being Hindi for Latta, and Dhakna being Hindi for Odhna.


As among the Maragoli of western Kenya, likewise "Luo ... widows become mostly remarried to the deceased husband’s brother.". In the highlands of Kenya, it is "Nandi custom for a widow to be "taken over" ... by a brother ... of her deceased husband." Furthermore, "according to customary law, it is tantamount to adultery for a widow to be sexually involved with a man other than a close agnate of her late husband."


In northern Nigeriamarker, "the customary practice of levirate marriage is found among the Hausa people". Amongst the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria it was a common practice for a woman to marry her late husband's brother if she had children so the children can retain the family identity and inheritance.


Soviet historian Khazanov gives economic reasons for the longevity of the levirate over two millennia of nomadic history: inheritance of a wife as a part of the deceased’s property and the necessity to support and educate children to continue the line of the deceased.

The levirate custom was revived under shaky economic conditions in the deceased’s family. Khazanov, citing [Abramzon, 1968, p. 289 - 290], mentions that during World War II the levirate was resurrected in Central Asia. In these circumstances, adult sons and brothers of the deceased man held themselves responsible to provide for his dependents. One of them would marry the widow and adopt her children, if there were any.


In Somaliamarker, levirate marriage is practiced, and provisions are made under Somali customary law with regard to bride price (yarad).

South Africa

In countries such as South Africa where a Levirate marriage is known as ukungena, the obligation for a woman to enter into a levirate marriage is on the decline due to increasing awareness of women's rights.

The practice probably originated centuries ago in agrarian societies where vocational opportunities for women other than working at home were non-existent, and re-marriage or going back to the parents' home was not an option. Also the practice ensured and continues to do so that any land or property owned by the deceased husband would continue to stay in the family. To ensure this if the widow did not have any male progeny and a levirate was not possible she would also be made to adopt a nephew of her husband. The commoner practice was for the widow to be married off to an unmarried younger brother- a custom referred to as Niyoga. The ceremony was generally a low-key affair where families from both the widow and the husband's side got together and came to the decision without any of the fanfare that was generally associated with weddings.

In recent years, the levirate has all but disappeared except from the remote rural areas.

In popular culture

Hallmark Hall of Fame movie "Loving Leah" addressed the issue of Levirate marriage in the orthodox Jewish community

See also

  • Fraternal polyandry, a marriage of two or more brothers and one woman
  • Genealogy of Jesus, in which Levirate marriage is offered to explain discrepancies
  • Sororate marriage, a marriage of two or more sisters and one man
  • Widow inheritance, a modern form of levirate marriage
  • Posthumous marriage, a marriage in which at least one party is dead
  • Avunculism, a cultural custom in which a maternal uncle demonstrates some institutionalised interest in his sister’s offspring and may take on many of the responsibilities typically associated with fatherhood .


  1. Chapter 4 (al-Nisa) verse 19
  4. Gmyrya L. "Hun Country At The Caspian Gate", Dagestan, Makhachkala 1995, p.212 (no ISBN, but the book is available in US libraries, Russian title "Strana Gunnov u Kaspiyskix vorot". Dagestan, Makhachkala, 1995)
  5. Nazif Shahiz Shahrani: The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan. University of Washington Press, 2002. p. 124
  7. Jaan Valsiner: Culture and Human Development. SAGE, 2000. p. 100a
  8. Jaan Valsiner: Culture and Human Development. SAGE, 2000. p. 99b
  9. Betty Potash: Widows in African Societies. Stanford U Pr, 1986. p. 77
  10. Betty Potash: Widows in African Societies. Stanford U Pr, 1986. pp. 77-78
  12. Khazanov А. M. “Social history of Scythians”. Moscow, 1975. p. 82 (no ISBN, but the book is available in US libraries, Russian title "Sotsialnaya Istoriya Skifov", Moskva, 1975)
  13. James Norman Dalrymple Anderson: Islamic Law in Africa. Routledge, 1970. p.46

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